Americans don’t get around much, and it’s probably a good thing they don’t. It’s probably best to stay home. Japan, for example, is entirely incomprehensible – a culture where the notion of shame is paramount. No American CEO who screwed up royally, running an unsafe operation where dozens of workers are blown up or fried or buried or otherwise left dead, or releasing a product that renders consumers blind, deaf or dumb, or bald, would ever do that ritual admission of shame and resign. And now and then you hear of a suicide – a shame suicide – although the traditional method of do-it-yourself disembowelment, seppuku, is not practiced much now. But that seems odd. An American CEO who fails spectacularly and does real harm takes the golden parachute – twenty million or more in cold hard cash – and moves on to an even better CEO job, in an unrelated industry, and makes even more money, or writes a book, or runs for office. Out here in California, Carley Fiorina may be our next senator – she was CEO of HP, and although she was the one who decided HP should buy Compaq Computers, which turned out to be a disaster, and although she was the one who was big on globalizing HP and eliminated ten or twenty thousand American jobs by moving those jobs to India or wherever, and although as this unfolded the stock price of HP fell off a cliff and the board abruptly fired her, she did get herself a twenty million dollar golden parachute. In April 2009, Condé Nast Portfolio listed her as one of “The Twenty Worst American CEOs of All Time” – and that means she should be our next senator? Should she be ashamed? Shame has nothing to do with it. And Meg Whitman – the former CEO of eBay – might be our next governor. She’s spent more than hundred million of her own money, so far, to make that happen, and there’s the matter of that business with the hired help – her housekeeper who was an undocumented alien, as Whitman seems to have known, and who is now claiming she was treated like dirt, then fired in the hope that no one would ever find out. Whitman seems proud of that. We don’t do shame. We’re not Japanese.
And of course France is incomprehensible too – those are folks who are not big on shame, per se, but insist that things be done just so. The formality is daunting – all the rules about how you address others, in which circumstances, and once that’s out of the way, that love for careful and subtle thinking, and talking about it – not just in some café on the Left Bank, but on all those strangely abstract and cerebral talk shows on television there. And there is all that stuff about what we call plain and simple eating – this comes first, followed by that, and the salad comes after the main course, and there are soft smelly cheeses at the end, with cognac and coffee. Hard liquor, by the way, is not an aperitif – scotch or a martini before the meal ruins the palate, you know. And don’t ask for a Diet Coke with that l’épaule d’agneau à l’ail rose de Lautrec – your waiter will turn on his heel and walk out, or weep bitterly. And of course there is the way you dress – that too is about what is done, and what is simply not done. Chic style, which seems to be a French invention, may look effortless – it’s supposed to – but it’s a careful calculation of what is expected played off against a bit of daring, but not too much daring, as too much daring would be gauche. This is hard work, and few master it. We don’t have time for such nonsense – sweats and comfortable walking shoes will do just fine. Yes, it’s easy to see the Americans in Paris – but we are an informal people. Le bon élève – roughly, those who were raised right and now instinctively know the right thing to do in all circumstances – follow the rules on what is done, and what is simply never done. But rules drive us crazy. We’re not French.
And that means we are a contrarian lot. You know the old rock ‘n’ roll song. He’s a Rebel – written by Gene Pitney and produced by Phil Spector and the classic cool-people-screw-the-rules song. Decades before that it was Ain’t Nobody’s Business – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and then Dinah Washington, through Eric Clapton to Willie Nelson, all saying hey, get off my case, or stop busting my chops, or whatever. No rules, no shame – what I do is none of your damned business. The Japanese and the French have no such anthems.
And this leads to some odd places. See Jacob Weisberg with Elitist Nonsense – he notes that the right’s favorite scare word seems to be “elitism” and finds that puzzling. Republicans are forever accusing Democrats of elitism, and as the midterms approach the frequency is increasing. Weisberg cites Rand Paul – Obama is “a liberal elitist … [who] believes that he knows what is best for people.” And he notes that now that we have the Tea Party, conservatives are now accusing each other of elitism – it seems Sharron Angle charged that Robert Bennett, the outgoing senator from Utah, “has become one of the elitists that is no longer in touch.” And Weisberg notes this has become even more generalized – the whole country has become elitist – he cites Carly Fiorina here saying that “the American Dream is in danger” because of the “elitists” in charge of the government. It’s an epidemic or something, although Weisberg adds that “when the rich former CEO of one of America’s largest companies casts herself as a victim of elitism, we have surely strayed far from any literal definition of the term.”
So the question is just what these folks are talking about:
Unlike the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, who popularized the term to describe shared identity based on economic interests, Republicans use it with connotations of education, geography, ideology, taste, and lifestyle – such that a millionaire investment banker who works for Goldman Sachs, went to Harvard, and reads the New York Times is an elitist but a billionaire CEO who grew up in Houston, went to a state university, and contributes to Republicans, is not.
It’s odd, and he recommends the 2008 Brian Williams NBC interview with John McCain and Sarah Palin with that one simple question – “Who is a member of the elite?”
And then it got interesting. Palin answered first – “I guess just people who think that they’re better than everyone else.” And then McCain said this – “I know where a lot of them live – in our nation’s capital and New York City- the ones [Palin] never went to a cocktail party with in Georgetown -who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.”
Weisberg was not amused:
Thus did the son and grandson of admirals, a millionaire who couldn’t remember how many houses he owned, accuse his mixed-race opponent, raised by a single-mother and only a few years past paying off his student loans, of being the real elite candidate in the campaign.
The word must mean something new now, so Weisberg suggests we look at how the two responses actually differ:
Palin’s definition says elitists are those who think they’re better than other people – a category in which by Election Day, on the evidence of her autobiography, included many of the people working for her own campaign. Palin is raw with the disrespect she feels and takes offense at being condescended to by people who, she thinks, think they are better than she is. Her anti-elitism takes the part of all Americans who feel similarly snubbed, and not necessarily in the context of politics. This version is a synonym for social snobbery, with the wrinkle that it’s not based on family, ethnicity, or wealth, but rather on the status that in contemporary American society is largely conferred by academic institutions.
This is defensive of course. Sure she doesn’t have much in the way of an education – a degree in sports journalism after years of bouncing around community colleges and state schools – and she doesn’t know much about a lot of things – but she’s damned tired of people thinking that means she’s not as good as anyone else. She’s angry that she gets no respect. Some turn that into comedy – Rodney Dangerfield – and some do something about that – they go postal or turn into Carrie in that movie (Palin lets us know her nickname was Barracuda, as a warning). And that taps into something very American – there was a conservative friend a few years ago who was making his first trip to Paris and told us all he was going to wear cut-offs and an old t-shirt, all the time, even in the fancy restaurants, and grab every Frenchman he could and tell him flat-out don’t you dare disrespect me because I’m an American and we saved your sorry butts in two world wars, you asshole. We all told him to expect a lot of befuddled Frenchmen. Yes, he hated the place. The French he met might have been befuddled, but then they are kind of used to this sort of thing.
But McCain is saying something else, or so Weisberg argues – McCain is defining elitism not as believing you are better than other people, but believing that you know better than other people. That’s a subtle distinction:
This is Rand Paul’s point about liberals: “They think they can tell us what to do and that most Americans aren’t smart enough to take care of themselves,” he said in his recent rant against the lower-Manhattan mosque. (So much for libertarianism.) “And I think that’s a really arrogant approach to the American people.” It also seems to be what Newt Gingrich has in mind when he pops off about “government of the elites by the elites for the elites.” In the McCain-Paul-Gingrich usage, an elitist is someone who thinks the opinion of a minority should sometimes prevail over the opinion of a majority.
But either way it works just fine:
Palin’s umbrage at liberals who act superior to conservatives plays upon the American ideal of social equality. In a meritocratic society, rejection can bring an even worse sting than under an aristocratic or hereditary one, because those who are less successful can’t blame outcomes on the arbitrariness of the system. Palin’s posture of victimization is a response to this sense of exclusion. The irony is that she assumes this posture in the service of policies whose effect is to deepen the inequalities of American life.
Wait – is he saying that Palin is whining that a meritocratic society is just unfair? That seems to be what is going on. It does hurt when others around you rise to the top because of the merit of their own native intelligence and hard work, with no help from anyone else, and you didn’t. That can make you angry. You lost. You want to lash out. And maybe that’s how many Americans feel.
And maybe McCain is right in his other assumption that most folks want to the majority to rule, even if the experts are right, and plays well in Peoria:
It has the further advantage of providing an escape hatch from the substance of issues by reframing them in cultural terms. Arguments for raising taxes, expanding health insurance, and fighting climate change are all met with by the rejoinder that some people should quit telling the rest of us how to live our lives.
But there is a problem with that:
The irony of this position is that this sort of automatic populism is the least conservative of political philosophies. It was Edmund Burke who most famously articulated the principle that elected legislators owe their constituents their best judgments rather than acting as conduits for majority opinion. In fact, it’s both valuable and necessary to have experts guide decision-making on complex subjects. I’d rather have a nuclear-energy policy set by Nobel Laureate Steven Chu of Berkeley than by a plebiscite – or have military procurement rules led by John McCain, for that matter.
But it’s all horseshit:
In practice, conservatives are no less inclined than liberals to adopt superior stances or to tell people how to live their lives. Palin’s counter-snobbery holds those who live in the middle of the country, own guns, and go to church are more authentic, more the “real America,” than those who live in coastal cities, profess atheism, or prefer a less demonstrative style of patriotism. But the insistence that gay people not be married, or that some go without health insurance, or that gas be lightly taxed, reflect choices about “how other people should live” no less than the opposite positions.
And you know how that goes:
If an unelected judge upholds gay marriage, he’s practicing liberal elitism. But if the same unelected judge were to invalidate Obama’s health care legislation, he would be defending the Constitution. Such hypocrisy is based on the construct of a pre-political state of nature, where we lived in abstract freedom until government arrived to limit and control us.
In the real world, we suffer from self-righteous conservatives as well as smug liberals, from as many Republicans as Democrats who think they know best. Arrogance and paternalism remain bipartisan attitudes.
So all the talk of elitism seems to be nonsense – but it’s our kind of nonsense. We’re rebels who know no shame, and we love it.
Well, that’s not entirely true. See Joan Walsh on the debate out here where Meg Whitman faced off against Jerry Brown and the sparks flew:
I’ve always assumed Brown would win anyway, though, because he’s got one key asset: He’s not Meg Whitman. And during Saturday’s Univision debate, I spotted another Brown asset: He knows how to make a moral and emotional appeal to our sense of justice, that California used to be a better place, and can be one again.
And there’s the background:
Whoever is behind the sudden emergence of Whitman’s former maid, Nicky Diaz – the woman the former eBay CEO says deceived her about having legal immigration status, going so far as to steal a letter from the federal government notifying Whitman about her illegal status (that turned out not to be true), but whom Whitman fired immediately upon “learning” the truth – it’s a defining story for Whitman, and not in a good way. I am sensitive to all the ways women are held to a different and higher standard than men in politics, and I search for descriptors that capture Whitman that are not somehow stereotypical.
But her series of supposedly folksy television ads, in which she lectures California about its problems and promises simplistic CEO solutions, have not worn well. I have heard her called a “schoolmarm,” a “nag” and a “shrew.” All those words are gendered and unfair. The best phrase I can come up with to describe Whitman is that she is a wealthy, entitled, out-of-touch hypocrite, and her handling of the Diaz story crystallizes that for voters.
I’m sure it had to smart that the issue emerged on the eve of Whitman’s debate with Brown on Univision, which gave both candidates a chance to reach the state’s growing Latino population, now almost a third of California’s population. But Whitman’s tone-deaf handling of the issues of immigration and opportunity related to her employing an undocumented worker was breathtaking.
In the debate, Walsh reports Whitman talked a lot about how she really loved those Hispanic folks, but it sounded wooden, and things went downhill. Brown said that the first time he was governor out here he signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations act, and that “empowered mostly undocumented people to be able to pick by a secret ballot the advocate of their choice, the union of their choice, and I’m not ashamed of the fact that people, particularly when they’re poor and when they don’t have power, and they don’t even speak English, they need a strong lawyer advocate standing in their corner, and that’s exactly what the farm labor bill did.”
And then he added a pledge to be fair – “I’m going to treat everybody, whether they’re documented or not, as God’s child, and my brothers and sisters.”
Oh my! How do you argue with that?
And then, to make matters worse, as she had to talk about her dealings with Nicky Diaz, Whitman’s “sense of entitlement” got ugly:
She complained that “the Nicky that I saw on the press conference three days ago was not the Nicky that I knew for nine years. And you know my first clue was she kept referring to me as Ms. Whitman and for the 10 years she worked – nine years she worked for me – she called me Meg and I called her Nicky.” Being on a first-name basis with your maid is a sure sign you’re a woman of the people, of course – but the fact that Whitman fired Diaz the moment she found out she was undocumented (and that’s if you believe Whitman’s version of the story) kind of undermines her “we were like family” fairy tale. Unbelievably, Whitman then blamed Brown for leaking the Diaz story (which he denies) and repeated an earlier call “to hold employers accountable, all employers accountable for hiring only documented workers.”
And then Brown really let it rip:
There you saw something. This is incredible, Meg, I didn’t want to hit you on this, but when you try to evade responsibility, you’re going around the state saying, employers must be accountable for hiring unlawful people. There ought to be raids on businesses. There’s no path to citizenship, no path. And young Latinos who may have lived here their whole lives and got A’s in high school should be barred from going to Fresno State. And then what happened here? You’re the one who falsely defamed this woman by saying she stole your mail. It came out that it’s not true and you had information, or at least you had enough to know there was something wrong here. So you’re the one who says, hey, I, you know – everyone’s gotta be accountable, this is a terrible thing, we have all these millions of people, but you don’t want to pass the citizenship. I mean… let’s be sympathetic and let’s really empathize with the millions of people that are in the shadows and you wanna keep them in the shadows and now you are trying to evade responsibility.
And Walsh reports it then got even worse:
A college student of Mexican descent who entered the country illegally as a young child asked about the federal and state DREAM Acts, which would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented young people to get a higher education and then work in the U.S. The self-described honors student at Fresno State graduated first in her class in high school and said she wanted to contribute to the California economy.
Whitman opened with a sarcastic-sounding salvo: “Well, first of all I am so pleased by your success and you were able to get a kindergarten through 12 grade education system in California even though you are undocumented.” Then she went on to tell her why she opposed both DREAM acts.
For Whitman it was all about scarce resources – your parents brought you here as an infant, and you know no other home, but no college for you – blame them, not me. Tough shit, kid.
Brown would have none of that:
Yes, to the federal Dream Act, which I can’t do anything about, except advocate and yes, to the state Dream Act which I can do something about because our current governor just vetoed a proposal and I would have signed that bill. Now Ms. Whitman goes beyond opposing the Dream Act, she wants to kick you out of this school because you are not documented and that is wrong, morally and humanly.
If I am elected governor, I’m the leader of the largest state in the union. I’m going to do whatever I can to get this comprehensive immigration reform … There’s a lot of politics now and the fact that my opponent is so strongly against the path, path to citizenship – then what happens? Do we deport two million people in California, eleven million people throughout the country? This is a real human tragedy. It’s a problem and these people are working for Ms. Whitman. They’re working all over the place, in this university, in restaurants and picking the food in our fields … What we need to do is to as Californians we need to demand that our federal government create a secure border, yes but a path to immigration and a way to handle this thing instead of just saying it doesn’t exist. We don’t know about these people. They’re in the shadows … so we can forget about it – it’s wrong, morally wrong.
And then, after the debate, Brown picked up the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee. It seems we’re not all rude and crude contrarians with no sense of shame. We’re just not Japanese or French.